Since its premiere in 1986, "Into the Woods" has been the Stephen Sondheim musical most likely to have an unnatural concept imposed on it. Directors often seem compelled to place this re-imagining of Grimm's fairy tales in toy stores, urban jungles or other high-concept settings.
One of the pleasures of the new San Francisco Playhouse production is the way it avoids the addition of extra interpretive layers. Sondheim's brilliant music and lyrics, paired with James Lapine's excellent book, are weird and wonderful enough on their own, and this production, directed by company co-founder and producing director Susi Damilano, wisely lets the piece speak for itself.
All the famous Grimm's characters -- Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the beanstalk), and others -- come together in this beguiling marriage of enchantment and existential angst, which imagines what happens after those well-known, happy-ending stories end. Damilano's 16-member cast plays the characters as real people with human issues, and the show's mix of humor and pathos is all the more potent for it.
In Act I, the musical introduces its central characters: the childless Baker and his Wife, whose fervent wish to overcome a family curse and have a baby of their own propels them into the woods, with Cinderella, Jack, Red Riding Hood and the others close behind.
It's a place of dark desires and surprising discoveries, with sudden appearances by witches, wolves and princes, a snow-white milk cow, and -- in a nice Freudian twist -- a formidable giant with the voice of a woman.
Damilano aims for clarity with the two-hour, 45-minute production. That's no easy task -- the cast is large, and the show moves quickly, with many songs and scene changes. Music director Dave Dobrusky, leading a lean seven-piece orchestra, makes the musical numbers sing, and Kimberly Richards' choreography is well-integrated. Nina Ball's multilevel set of gnarly trees and secret spaces is accommodating; Michael Oesch's lighting and Theodore J. H. Hulsker's sound designs add atmosphere, although the sonic mix was often overamped.
The actors, costumed in Abra Berman's eclectic fairy-tale wear, strike the right notes of wit and whimsy, longing and loneliness. A big part of the appeal of "Into the Woods" is watching these characters grow up and settle down, and the cast illuminates the transitions in fierce, funny performances.
If they're not always up to the challenge of Sondheim's music -- the level of vocal precision varies throughout the cast -- the performances are always energetic. Keith Pinto gives a hearty performance as the Baker, and El Beh shines as his down-to-earth Wife; her Act II song, "Moments in the Woods," is a delightful episode of awakening. Jeffrey Brian Adams is the cast's vocal standout as Cinderella's Prince; his "Agony" duet with Ryan McCray as Rapunzel's Prince is the musical highlight. Adams and McCray also get in a good scene as a pair of lusty, hormonal wolves.
Monique Hafen is an endearing Cinderella; Noelani Neal sings prettily as Rapunzel, and Corinne Proctor is an effervescent Red Riding Hood. Safiya Fredericks's Witch, hampered in Act I by a mossy, shapeless costume, returns in a glamorous gown in Act II. Tim Homsley is an earnest, articulate Jack, and the invaluable Maureen McVerry hits all the right notes as his Mother. Louis Parnell is the sage Narrator, and Ian DeVaynes charms in the mostly silent role of the Boy. Lily Drexler (Lucinda), Michelle Drexler (Florinda), Bekka Fink (Cinderella's Mother), and John Paul Gonzalez (Steward) make characterful contributions.
This production, which closes the company's season, comes at an excellent time -- a Disney film version of "Into the Woods," starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, is due out later this year. It's likely to be bigger and flashier, but it may not be as faithful, or nearly as much fun.
By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, presented by San Francisco Playhouse.
Through: Sept. 6
Where: 450 Post Street,
Running time: 2 hours,
45 minutes, one intermission